Autobiographical writing helps combat depression. This finding has emerged from research carried out at the University of Twente. Researchers at the university developed a course that centres on autobiographical writing and reflection and studied the results. The number of people with clinically relevant depression-related complaints among those who took the course fell by 53 per cent, compared to 22 per cent in the control group.
Autobiographical writing is part of a new movement within psychology, known as narrative psychology. This movement focuses on the metaphor of storytelling as a way of understanding the human psyche. This metaphor sees people as novels in the making. There are times when people suffer from "writers block". They do not know how their life story should continue or they experience a type of "narrative foreclosure" in which they prematurely have the idea that their life is over. This can lead to feelings of futility and result in depression.
Psychologists at the University of Twente have developed a course with a focus on autobiographical writing and reflection. The participants identify the themes and narrative threads that are central to their own lives. They are then encouraged to explore the possibility of coming up with an alternative reading of the events and to consider the possibility of having overlooked important details. All of the questions are geared towards enabling participants to regain control over their own life story. The participants search for aspects that can serve as starting points for a new and inspired chapter.
The University of Twente recently completed a study into the effect of the course, in which 202 people with clinically relevant depression-related complaints took part. Half of the group took the course, while the other half were placed on a waiting list but also had unrestricted access to other kinds of care. Both groups were asked to fill in questionnaires and take part in diagnostic interviews on four occasions: before the course began, immediately after it had finished, three months later and nine months later. The results showed that the number of people with clinically relevant depression-related complaints among those who took the course fell by 53 per cent, compared to 22 per cent in the control group. The significant positive effect among participants continued in the medium term (three months later) and in the long term (nine months later). To date, the study is the largest in the world examining the effects of autobiographical writing on people's mental health.
The course was developed by Ernst Bohlmeijer and Gerben Westerhof of the University of Twente's IBR research institute and is currently being offered to patients in 20 mental health centres in the Netherlands. The course title Op verhaal komen is based on a Dutch phrase that combines storytelling with the idea of recovery. The course takes seven weeks to complete and is designed for groups of four. The website www.psychologievandelevenskunst.nl contains a list of the institutes and locations where the course is held.
The psychology of the art of living
The researchers see the course and the research as part of a new perspective on mental health: the psychology of the art of living. The idea behind this approach is that mental health is more than just the absence of psychological problems. It also encompasses the ability to achieve personal development and to connect with other people in a meaningful way.
Note to the press: The study is financed by ZonMw, a Dutch organization that promotes healthcare research and innovation. For further details, please contact our Science Information Officer Joost Bruysters on +31(0)53 489 2773 or +31 (0)6 1048 8228.